Chapter 7: Treason? I Barely Know Him!
That was odd. Clandestine wasn't sure of how concerned she should be, but if she had to guess, people didn't come out all this way and wait for the homeowner to return unless it was important. She squinted, watching as Matt walked away for a moment before she traced Kenneth and Gregor's trail as they rode up to the cabin.
"Why does he always do that?" Percy muttered as he shut the gate.
Clandestine looked over to him with her brows drawn together.
"Do what?" she asked.
Percy leaned on the fence, looking out at the cows.
"He always says something to make me sound stupid and just..." Percy threw his hands up in Matt's direction. "Leaves."
Clandestine looked over to Matt, who was getting smaller as he quickly made his way over to the stables. Maybe he was anxious to find out who was at the cabin, too? But something didn't feel right. She couldn't quite put her finger on it.
"I'm sorry," Clandestine said absently. "That's not, uh... very nice."
"He does it all the time," Percy sighed. "Acts like I'm an idiot. I can't wait for Gregor to fire him."
Clandestine wasn't sure what to say in response. This felt like some kind of inter-personal drama she wasn't really a part of and didn't need to be, and she didn't really want to take sides. It also wasn't her main concern at the moment. Honestly, she was more worried about the man at the cabin. If there was trouble, she wanted to be there to help, especially since Gregor has been so kind as to hire her.
"So... what are we supposed to do with the cows?" Clandestine asked.
"I already did the headcount," Percy said.
"Ah," Clandestine nodded. "And uh--"
"You don't have to do anything," Percy said. "You did your job already."
Right. She killed the monster.
Clandestine nodded again, feeling a bit awkward and oddly naked without Billy there. She could've kept Billy around, now that she thought of it. She supposed she hadn't been thinking at all. She'd been too caught up in the mystery of who was there.
Turning away, Clandestine cleared her throat.
"Well, uh... I'll see you, then," she said.
Looking out at the cabin, Gregor and Kenneth were already there.
Clandestine broke into a run and, with long strides, she skirted around the fence and let the momentum and gravity carry her downhill. She was aware that it probably looked a little dramatic, but she didn't want to miss out on whatever conversation was being had and make people have to repeat themselves.
That, and there was something that just didn't feel right.
She couldn't shake it away. Even though there were no monstrous creatures around, she couldn't help but feel like the hairs on the back of her neck were sticking up. Some forgotten instinct inside of her didn't just worry that danger was coming. She knew it was.
Her feet pounded against the grass until she reached the bottom of the hill and hit dirt. The cabin was only a few yards away, and she started to slow down, still letting momentum carry her forward until she was walking the last few feet, now well within earshot to pick up the conversation.
"I've been tracking him for a few weeks," the man on the porch said.
Clandestine found herself staring at him. He was tall. Young. He had brown skin and dark hair like her, but cropped short and slicked back. He couldn't have been older than his early 20s, and yet he had a shock of white hair by his temple. He looked strong and lean, and he seemed oddly relaxed despite having the posture of someone alert. Maybe it was his expression or the way he talked, but he seemed confident. Inherently trustworthy, despite the circumstances.
"He was among your recent hires, yes?" the man continued, looking at Gregor. He didn't even give Clandestine a glance.
"...Yes," Gregor said, and Clandestine could tell he sounded conflicted. Stiffly, he looked up at the man and stuck his hands in his pockets.
"Are you sure it's him? Matt doesn't seem that dangerous. He's a bit quiet, but he'd never hurt anyone," Gregor defended, though Clandestine didn't understand what for.
But she soon got her answer.
The man reached into his coat. At that moment Clandestine noticed two things.
One: this man was armed. Not just with a gun at his side, but with a whole belt of knives strapped across his chest. Another gun sat on his other hip, and he had a sling around his back. She could see the tip of the rifle sticking out from behind his shoulder, and who knew how many other weapons this man had hidden on his person.
Second: the poster.
The man pulled out a piece of paper folded in half. He opened it with a flick, and the poster faced all three of them with the face of a man drawn on it that bore an eerie resemblance to someone they all knew.
Except the name written on the poster said: "Tiberius Hemming. Wanted Alive for committing High Treason against the Moonlight Kingdom."
And when her eyes landed on how many zeros sat next to the "5" and the "gold pieces" as a reward, she wasn't sure if the world stopped moving or if it was just her that froze in place.
Silence sat between the four of them for a few long, painful seconds, and then Kenneth broke the silence.
"I don't see much of a resemblance," Kenneth said, but Clandestine knew it was a lie.
Sure, the drawing wasn't perfect. It looked like it had been drawn when Matt was younger; his face was clean-shaven, and he had fewer scars on his face, but the eyes and nose were eerily the same. His thick eyebrows were pretty easy to pick out as a defining feature.
That, and they nailed Matt's resting angry expression.
"He's been wanted for several years. He's learned how to blend in and be unassuming," the man said.
There was a beat of tense silence, and Clandestine watched as Kenneth and Gregor shared a look while the man continued.
"Where is he now?"
It was at that moment that the reality of the situation began to sink in.
This man - whoever he was - was a bounty hunter. Matt was a wanted man, and this man was here to retrieve the bounty. He wasn't going to wait for an answer if Kenneth and Gregor were uncooperative. She knew that bounty hunters didn't have problems taking matters into their own hands. That's why they went into that profession in the first place.
Swallowing, Clandestine finally broke free from her frozen panic.
She ran. This time, it was to the barn. That was the last place she'd seen him. That was the last place anyone would've seen him go. Everyone knew he was there. The man didn't even have to ask.
Clandestine sped to get there first.
But just as she closed in on the barn, she saw Elliot burst out of the already open barn doors.
Skidding to a stop, heart pounding, she just missed colliding with Matt and Elliot as they rode out, veering around the other side of the barn, out of view.
But that cover would only last them a few seconds.
Spinning around, she looked back at the cabin, in horror, watching as the bounty hunter leaped atop his horse and cracked the reins. Gregor and Kenneth's confused sputtering overlapped in an incomprehensible panic.
No. No. No.
She didn't know what Matt did to earn the charge of "high treason," but what little she knew of him told her enough: he didn't deserve this.
Her mind moved faster than her body, and she scrambled to whirl back around. She tripped on her own feet, but pushed herself back up and launched herself into the barn with a leap. She saw Billy sitting in a stall, saddle, and reins still on. Matt hadn't wasted time taking off any tack.
That's why he went to the barn. He was already preparing to run.
Clandestine opened the stall and hastily led Billy out of the barn with anxiety bubbling in her gut. She jumped up into the saddle and as she rode Billy out into the open field, she had a brief moment of doubt.
What was she doing?
But then she looked out and saw Matt and Elliot making their way up the next hill, and the man speeding after them, and she didn't need to think anymore.
"Hyah!" she shouted, and Billy started forward, rounding the barn and quickly gaining speed.